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Church takes Nigerian film industry by storm

Church takes Nigerian film industry by storm March 25, 2006

Mark Steyn mentioned a few months ago that Nigeria “now has the third biggest film industry in the world, after Hollywood and Bollywood.” What he didn’t mention — but I guess it was inevitable — is that the Nigerian film industry now goes by the name “Nollywood”. And now, the Associated Press reports that one church has been taking the industry by storm:

Now playing across Nigeria: The saga of a church that self-produced a few films and became an instant mogul in the country’s giant movie marketplace known as Nollywood.

It’s the latest and perhaps most audacious foray into mass culture by the Redeemed Christian Church of God. In less than a year, the church’s Dove Studios has gone from Nollywood greenhorns to barons.

Dove has several hits under its belt, a pile of scripts from Nollywood’s top filmmakers and the foundations for a nationwide distribution network that eventually could give it make-or-break influence over the entire industry which churns out more than a dozen new films on DVDs and videos each week and is the principal entertainment market in Nigeria.

“We’re looking to make crossover movies,” said Ope Banwo, head of the church’s World Dove Media Plc., which includes a satellite television division, a celebrity-oriented magazine and state-of-the-art studios that produce music videos and other works. “Our idea was to use popular, secular actors so the guy on the street doesn’t know what’s coming at him. … We’re softly getting him to watch evangelism.”

The church stormed into Nollywood with its first four movies last year, including the English-language “The AIDS Patient” about an infected woman cured by the Holy Spirit and “Agan” (or “None Shall be Barren”), a story in the local Yoruba language about a pastor and his wife who finally conceive a baby after deep prayer.

The films fit in well with one of the traditional themes of Nollywood: people overcoming odds and good triumphing over evil.

More than 50,000 copies of the Dove movies have been sold, which is a runaway success by Nollywood standards. Next up: a $460,000 production about the history of the Redeemed Church.

Banwo’s desk has stacks of scripts from established Nollywood directors. The reason, he said, is Dove’s strategy to build Nigeria’s first, large-scale movie distribution infrastructure.

Despite Nollywood’s prolific output, there is no network to send the DVDs and videos around the vast nation of more than 120 million people. In March, Dove began finalizing a deal to sell its films at post offices across Nigeria. Dove also is studying ways to use its thousands of parishes to market the movies.

Dove won’t turn away other studios’ film for distribution. But there’s a catch, said Banwo.

“The movies would have to have Christian resolutions or a moral theme,” he said. “So in that way we could influence Nollywood.”

Click here for another AP story on the church involved here.

UPDATE: Thanks to Ellen Collison for pointing me to this article on Nollywood from a November 2003 issue of the Washington Post:

Simba International Records just can’t keep enough Nigerian movies in stock these days. Teenagers swarm into the Langley Park shop in baggy jeans and T-shirts for the latest comedies. Middle-aged women usually want the romances.

In one of the more popular films, “Who Killed Okomfo Anokye,” a wealthy, born-again Christian shoos away his younger brother, a shanty-dwelling voodoo priest, with a swift wave of the Bible, and a sharp verbal rebuke. “You are no longer my brother,” the older man declares. “He’s evil!”

These English-language Nigerian movies are gaining popularity among the nation’s fast-growing African immigrant population, offering their very Americanized children a glimpse of African life, particularly the clash of modernity and traditionalism and the battle between fundamentalist Christian, Islamic and tribal religions that is sweeping the African continent. . . .

Some film experts remain skeptical that the Nigerian movies will penetrate the broader U.S. market. Jonathan Haynes, a Long Island University professor and author of the book, “Nigerian Video Films,” noted the films’ heavy emphasis on the supernatural and said, “Culturally, they’re from someplace else.” In “Who Killed Okomfo Anokye,” for instance, the voodoo priest lashes a dead man’s body with oils and leaves, then chants in a tribal language. A woman prays in tongues. Seconds later, the man rises. The woman praises the Lord, waving her Bible.

“That can seem weird to Americans, especially if it’s not being cast as part of some traditional African past,” Haynes said. “It’s an acquired taste.” . . .

Given that acclaimed African movies have been based on the lives of Jesus and the Genesis patriarchs, I can only wonder if these Nigerian filmmakers will turn their efforts towards Bible adaptations, too. Or perhaps one of them has already done this…?

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